Oct. 4, 1999 — This is clearly not what AT&T had in mind, but entrepreneurs in the online sex industry have figured out a way to use the Internet to literally reach out and touch, tickle, buzz or scratch someone. And while “cyberdildonics” and the “cyber sex suit” may not move the Earth outside the world of online sex, as the first products to explore the Net’s tactile possibilities they are likely to touch off a commercial land rush to the new frontier.
The online sex industry has long played a pioneering role in moving innovative Net technology like live video and interactivity into the mainstream. The creators and users of the cyberdildonics and the cyber sex suit say they expect their products to continue that trend.
“If you can control a sex toy through your monitor, you can control just about anything,” said Allen Hadazy, president of SafeSexPlus.com, which has reported brisk sales of the cyberdildonics devices since their debut in April. “Controlling devices remotely through an everyday Internet connection isn’t the future. It’s here now.”
But some observers of the technology sector say the primitive state of tactile technology relegates the latest in orgasmic gadgetry to the curiosities category.
‘It doesn't really exist’
“I’m interested in why people are fascinated with this idea (sex at a distance), even though it doesn’t really exist and may never exist at that realistic, immersive level,” said author Howard Reingold, who first used the term cyberdildonics in his 1991 book “Virtual Reality.”
The two devices employ very different strategies to reach their goal, which the creators of the cyberdildonics sex toys have dubbed “feel-good Internet.”
In their case, the developers simply took an offline technology — electric vibrators and other sex toys — and created a devilishly simple but clever system that allows their speed to be controlled over an Internet connection.
“It’s going to be very beneficial, I imagine, for military couples, and I think (there is) going to be a day when these toys are given as bachelor and bachelorette gifts much more than lingerie and strippers and stuff,” said Cheyenne, an adult-site webmistress who offers customers the option of using cyberdildonics in video-chat sessions.
Sensors in a neoprene bodysuit
The cyber sex suit, on the other hand, is strictly a for-the-Net creation: a neoprene bodysuit equipped with 36 sensors that, at the click of a mouse, can deliver a handful of sensations to the wearer.
“It may bring you to full orgasm; it may not,” said Lisa, a model who has served as a test subject for the cyber sex suit, which is expected to go on sale early next year. “... It’s not about that. It’s more about playing with your partner.”
But David James, president and co-founder of Vivid Entertainment Inc., the suit’s developer, said that he expects the invention to turn the online porn business on its ear by allowing suit-wearing customers to participate.
“The suit (will) … virtually revolutionize the 900- and 800-number-type business,” said James, a Welsh immigrant whose first job was hard labor in a coal mine in his native land. “…That actually is where the very big money would be in the future.”
He also figures his Van Nuys, Calif.,-based company, which also produces adult television fare, operates a passel of porn Web sites and bills itself as the world leader in Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) technology, could profit by selling DVD discs with new themes and sensations each month to those who purchase a suit.
Sex toys selling briskly
The early reception given the cyberdildonics line — coupled with the fact that the online sex business is now pulling in roughly $1 billion a year, according to analysts’ best guesses — suggests the appetite for such online accoutrements is keen.
Hadazy, whose San Francisco-based firm developed the sex toys, which range in price from $29.99 to $99.99, said sales have climbed to between 50 and 100 units a day without any advertising.
Most of the sales have been to members of the Intimate Friends Network (commonly known as Ifriends), a 1.9 million-member online community whose members provided the impetus by requesting a line of sex toys for both men and women that they could use in conjunction with adult video chat, Hadazy said.
“The users of this service, over time, began to request that the intellectual stimulation they enjoy over the service be augmented with actual physical stimulation,” he said. “Some of the users suggested a few clever ideas and the result was SafeSexPlus.com, which markets and sells the cyberdildonics devices.”
The key that allows a user to remotely control the devices is a photo diode that is attached to the computer monitor with a suction cup and responds to changes in brightness on the screen.
“As those pixels brighten, the intensity of the device will increase; as the pixels darken, the intensity will decrease,” Hadazy explained. “The remote user, elsewhere on the Internet, is in effect in control of the brightness of a section of your monitor. And that’s what makes the device completely and utterly cross platform and supported by any Internet connection.”
Different set of difficulties
Developers of the cyber sex suit faced a different set of difficulties, namely mimicking sensations produced by real world touch.
The initiator uses software on his computer to select one of five sensations — tickle, pinprick, vibration, hot or cold — and direct it to a specific part of the suit wearer’s body. An electronic signal is sent to a DVD player, through the Internet, to the suit wearer’s computer and finally to the suit itself, where it activates the appropriate sensor.
“To be honest, it’s nothing magical,” he said. “I’m sure a pair of college students could have probably sat down and come up with something far more futuristic than we have here. The big advantage we’ve got, of course, is our marketing ability to first of all have it made and then be able to sell it worldwide.”
He said the company has spent about $180,000 to develop the suit, which he said will retail for about $170.
But before seeking approval from the Federal Trade Commission to market the suit, James’ team must conquer a final sticky problem: Ensuring that the range of electrical sources and delivery systems around the world don’t trigger a potentially dangerous electrical surge.
Fears of a surge
“If, for example, a chap was wearing a pacemaker ... and he’s hooked up to a generator ... he could (be) fried or whatever by that extra power going through it,” James said.
Despite such difficulties, some observers see the advances incorporated in the cyber sex suit, particularly its use of DVD technology, as an important step toward a new breed of interactive products that incorporate some sensory capability with high-resolution video for a more-realistic experience.
“I can really see programs, like maybe golf or tennis or skiing ... where it would be necessary to have kind of a virtual environment,” said Julia Rivera, executive producer of Inside DVD magazine. “So say if you go the golf DVD, you would be able to connect and take a golf lesson. And because of the video capability of the DVD, you could select the best golf courses in the world (to practice on).”
But researchers say the primitive state of tactile technology today means that dramatic advances will be needed before such programs can be created. And they warn that the computer generation’s holy grail — virtual reality — remains years if not decades in the future.
In order to create a realistic computer-simulated environment that would allow a user to “touch” other inhabitants of the virtual universe, tactile sensors must be able to both register the computer user’s position and render feedback, said Ian Davis, director of technology with computer game-maker Activision.
‘A lot of obstaces’
“There are a lot of obstacles,” he said. “The underlying technology is pretty rudimentary right now. There is some ability to do ‘force feedback’ and some ability to measure the location and angles of joints on the human body, but it isn’t robust yet and is still years away from being technically solid.”
Mel Siegel, a senior research scientist in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, said the biggest problem is the complexity of the information required for the brain to determine the shape and texture of an object.
“You put your finger down on a complex surface and you really don’t get a great deal of information from that,” he said. “You now move your finger over that complex surface and you start to understand the shape and structure of what you’re feeling. And I think the hard part (of simulating touch) is that dynamics.”
That hurdle has stopped previous attempts to incorporate any but the most basic tactile sensations in computer applications, and it will again prevent the technologies pioneered by the cyberdildonics and the cyber sex suit from having much of an impact, said computer scientist and high-tech visionary Jaron Lanier, credited with coining the term “virtual reality.”
“There have been things like this for a long time,” said Lanier, who recalled seeing similar suits and remote-controlled dildos more than a decade ago. “…I think there’s nothing new here except for the scale of it. There’s a lot of money and a lot more people on the Internet now, so from a social point of view this would be new. But I’m going to predict failure for it.”
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